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Youth-driven anti-gun violence efforts on display in Saturday march

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Annette Luther works on drying freshly printed banners.
Annette Luther, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action, works on drying freshly printed banners in the basement of the Casket Arts Building in Minneapolis on Wednesday.
Tom Baker for MPR News

Young people who have become the driving force in efforts to address gun violence are finalizing plans for a Minnesota March for Our Lives that could draw thousands to the state Capitol on Saturday. The local demonstration coincides with a national march in Washington, D.C., and comes just over a month after a school shooting killed 17 people in Parkland, Florida.

"I just get more and more upset that people aren't taking action on this issue because they feel like they don't have the voice, or they don't have the power," said Alex Young-Williams, a sophomore at Macalester College in St. Paul. Young-Williams is one of the Minnesota march's lead organizers and said he was inspired to contribute shortly after the Parkland shooting when he didn't see what he was expecting on the Macalester campus.

"You would think at a place like Macalester, which is known for being very liberal, there would be a very strong response to it and people would be really upset about it, but I didn't really get the vibe on campus that I wanted to feel," Young-Williams said.

James Farnsworth is working with both high school and college volunteers.
James Farnsworth speaks during a planning meeting for the March For Our Lives protest at the Highland Park Community Center in St. Paul Wednesday.
Tom Baker for MPR News

Youth organizers are working with established advocacy groups Moms Demand Action and Protect Minnesota to plan the local event, which had drawn nearly 8,000 "yes" RSVP's on Facebook by Thursday afternoon.

Fellow organizer and University of Minnesota student James Farnsworth said the youth-led movement to push for gun control and other measures that arose in the wake of the Parkland shooting seemed different to him and inspired him to take action.

"It struck an age group of students that were able to advocate for themselves," said Farnsworth. "While this was unfortunate and never should have happened, it happened to the right group to be able to talk about their personal experience in the context of advocating for change."

Farnsworth said the Minnesota march does not have a unified platform regarding proposed gun control measures or other legislative action, but some local students are proposing specific measures. Roosevelt High School student Ben Jaeger is pushing a bill that would require background checks for most firearm sales. The bill is currently in committee.

Jaeger is also scheduled to speak at Saturday's event. He said he feels a responsibility "as a citizen who's just beginning his life here in this country and in this state" to take action, "knowing that there are ways to prevent this degree of anguish and this degree of suffering and this degree of loss in our country."

Ben Jaeger, Roosevelt High junior and Students Demand Action coordinator
Ben Jaeger, a junior at Roosevelt High School and a coordinator for Students Demand Action, speaks with Black Lives Matter St. Paul leader Todd Gramenz during a planning meeting.
Tom Baker for MPR News

As Farnsworth and Young-Williams put the finishing touches on Saturday's program, they said all the pieces were falling into place. Not that there hadn't been bumps along the way.

"Because I'm new to organizing, there are so many different aspects of the rally I'd never even thought of before," Young-Williams said. For example, "we were thinking somewhere in the ballpark of 50 or 60 [marshals for the march], and then we talked to the person who helped run the women's march last year, and she said she needed more than 500."

The St. Paul event will feature speakers including students, legislators and gun violence survivors. To keep the focus on young people, organizers are asking allies older than college age not to join the march itself but rather to join the rally at the state Capitol.

Farnsworth said he hopes the momentum sparked by the national March For Our Lives movement continues long past the weekend.

"The march is going to be an exciting and powerful event but that's only one piece of it," he said. "I think there's a place for everyone, depending on where your strengths are, to really make an impact."